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Beth Hoffman: Stress Was Secretly Killing Me

What looks like a charmed life is often less than perfect.

An essay by Beth Hoffman, author of Looking for Me

A lot of us do it. We’ll look at a stranger and take in their clothes, the way they walk, the purpose in their eyes, and an image forms in our minds of what their life must be like. But in truth, we have no idea.

I suspect most people thought I had it pretty good. As president and co-owner of an interior design studio, I was living a life that appeared to be glamorous. Each day I got to dress up and work with exceptional fabrics and furniture while I transformed dull rooms into sanctuaries where my clients could unwind and entertain. Countless times people would say things like, “What a charmed life you have,” or, “What an easy way to spend your day.”

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Easy? Oh, if only they knew.

They didn’t see what the 70-hour work weeks and constant stress were doing to my body, let alone my psyche. Year after year I took on more clients and handled countless crises with employees, vendors, and shipping companies. I was running for the roses in the world of small business, and I was also growing frail and exhausted. But I was raised on a farm, and my family worked hard every day—fatigue was a given. If we’d had a mantra, it surely would have been “Don’t let the sun set on a job undone.”

So I just kept going.

Right in the middle of an enormous project, I developed pneumonia which rapidly cascaded into septicemia, a poisoning of the blood that has more than a 50% mortality rate that increases by 7% for every hour treatment is delayed. Often by the time one goes to the hospital, renal failure and congestive failure have already begun. I nearly died of the same type of infection that took puppeteer Jim Henson’s life. Though I don’t remember a great deal of the first four days of intensive care treatment, I do remember a nurse holding my hand and saying, “Don’t give up.”

After being released from the hospital, I was sent home for total bed rest. As I lay and starred at the ceiling, I began to reevaluate my life—the good, the bad, and the downright painful. I was devastated and angry that I’d suffered such a cruel fate, and I was so weak that I wondered if I’d ever feel normal again.

As I struggled to regain my health and find spiritual ballast, I discovered an old cardboard box at the back of my closet. For twenty-five years I had hauled that old box around to the various places I’d lived, yet I didn’t remember what was inside. Sealed with layers of packing tape that had long since yellowed, the corners of the box were crushed and the bottom was discolored from moisture.

With nothing to do but try and get better, I lifted the box on the bed and ripped off the tape. Inside were drawings and stories I’d created in my childhood. One by one I removed each item and placed it on my bed. And there I sat, surrounded by a collage of my youth, and it was a sobering. With the passage of time and the clarity of adult eyes, there was no mistaking how far I’d strayed from the purity of my childhood dreams—most specifically, those of writing stories.

And just as I’d done in childhood, I wondered what it would be like to stitch my words together until they told a story that was uniquely mine. There was no denying that the fire of my youth had been rekindled, yet I knew there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to fulfill the demands of my career and write, too. So I put everything back inside the box, sealed it shut, and eventually went back to my career.

Once again I had let the dream go.

But dreams are strange things that pop up again and again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the contents of that old cardboard box. I knew I had to write. So to satisfy my longing, I began to create newspaper ads for the design studio. I’d select a piece of furniture and make up a short fictional story about who owned it, who wished they owned, it, who stole it, or who fought for it in a divorce. The ads became a hit, and I loved writing them, but six years went by and I still longed to write. Not just a story, but a full-length novel.

Then, on a snowy January morning, a stranger called the design studio to tell me how much he and his wife enjoyed the story ads. He said they had cut their favorites from the newspaper and taped them to their refrigerator. Before ending our call, he said, “Have you ever thought of writing a book?”

Like an unexpected gust of wind, his words blew the door wide open. I walked to the front window of the showroom, and while watching the snowfall, I thought: What good is it to have a dream and never go after it? At that moment I knew if I were going to write a novel, it had to be now or never. When I turned away from the window, I’d made up my mind—it was time to go after my dream. Though I knew the odds of getting published were slim, I also knew the odds had been against me when I developed septicemia. Yet I miraculously survived. Did I live so I could continue to worry about broken lamps and shipping delays? Or had I been given the gift of a second rite of passage?

By April I had sold my portion of the business and cleaned out my office. I drove home feeling deeply frightened and yet full of wonder at what my future might bring. Four years later I had a finished novel in my hands. Looking back, I’m still shocked that I walked away from a business that I worked so hard to build. It’s the gutsiest thing I’ve ever done, and, as it turns out, it was also the wisest. Though writing is incredibly hard work that demands great discipline, I’ve never been happier.

I often think about a passage in the book Illusions by Richard Bach: “You are never given a wish without being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”

My response to that statement is YES! If we can find the courage to say yes to our dream and stay focused, we really can make our dream a reality.

Beth Hoffman is the New York Times bestselling author of Looking for Me and Saving Ceecee Honeycutt.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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